At Scrap Exchange, art as pastime

Aug. 30, 2013 @ 09:16 AM

“Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Mail Art,” Scrap Exchange, 923 Franklin St., Cordoba Center for the Arts, Durham, through Sept. 14.
“2013 Members’ Showcase: Durham Art Guild,” Durham Arts Council building, 120 Morris St., through Sept. 7.

There is not one among you, I dare say, who does not have a stash of letters and postcards at the bottom of a drawer or in the back of a closet. You probably have them because they were love letters or delightfully funny or poignant notes from a child or grandchild, or perhaps a note announcing something important. You kept them because of what was written. But there are all sorts of mail people keep because of the way they were made.
Examples of that are the small works of art which arrived by mail after a call from the Scrap Exchange to enter their mail art show. Roderick McClain, gallery coordinator, said a few came from Durham but most came from out of state and about 10 percent came internationally, especially from Germany, the United Kingdom and Ireland. The international call for mail art also triggered support from the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse; their staff and their public created art to send to this exhibit.
The art could not be wrapped in a box, so it had to go through the mailing process without any outside protection and, surprisingly, these small objects, most no bigger than a post card, suffered very little wear and tear. The majority came by U.S. Mail although some used other routes of delivery. Even if you lived around the corner, no art was accepted hand-delivered. This show is about the act of mailing as much as it is the object mailed. 
Other parameters included a limit on new materials: At least 75 percent of the object had to be made of recycled materials. The theme was open but artists were cautioned this venue was family friendly. The art began to arrive shortly after the call and at show time there were 82 objects for exhibition. According to McClain objects are still arriving and although they will not be hung, they will be archived and their photographs will be included on the Scrap Exchange Facebook page. McClain was really happy about this first effort and said the organization will try it again. He also told me about a big world out there where mail art thrives. None of this is ever for sale and if you were to join the loose group of mail artists in the world, your payment, at best, would be a return piece from another mail artist.
Most of the art is covered back and front with found materials. One is on a paper plate which was mailed in a see-through plastic bag, with almost no damage; several are on corrugated card board cut to a convenient size; one is a garden of pressed flowers in a glass frame, stamped and delivered by the Postal Service without so much as a crack in the glass. Sometimes the work is signed. Rarely is there a return address.
The gallery is small and stripped down just like the rest of Scrap Exchange which occupies a huge warehouse. The art hangs from clotheslines and offers a different experience to the art aficionado. This is not about fine art; it is about art as a wonderful pastime and about the distance traveled. It invites fantasy — where did it come from, how many people handled it, did it come by truck or plane? Did the stamps reflect the cost of mailing? Did the carrier pay any attention to it or was it just one more thing to deliver to an address? Did the artist have a hidden theme?
I had some favorites and you will too. Look for the series of three with an outlined robot who sees no evil, speaks no evil, and hears no evil; a packet from Ireland containing three envelopes with photographs of the Irish countryside; a large envelope which when opened reveals several inner parts including a paper wheel that turns; and a carefully painted figure touched by a heavenly hand and acknowledged by several worldly ones.
An unstated theme, but one you cannot miss, is the importance of the Post Office department. As busy as they are in the station, that is how nice and caring the men and women are who deliver our mail.

In the first of two non-juried Durham Art Guild members’ shows this year, 92 artists submitted 92 works of art. With this successful showing, the artists obviously believe this is an important opportunity for them, and it is. Showcases for original local art are becoming increasingly scarce so this beautiful space which is open to the public seven days a week is very special.
A show like this, where each artist has, we assume, chosen his or her best work is important to visit. If you are beginning to think about collecting art there is no better place to begin looking than this sort of open exhibition. Here you have an eclectic choice of styles, from realism to abstraction, from straight photography to digital, and three-dimensional work made in every medium, including video. Begin your study by moving toward the images that have caught your eye. There may be just a few or there may be many. Then try to figure out why you liked one over another. When you have found a couple you think you might like to see in your home, write down the artists’ names and start looking for their art in other venues.
In fact, the Guild will be sponsoring a juried show soon. Come back and see if your artists are there. If so, you may be ready to buy or maybe not yet. Keep looking; in a very short time, you will be your own critic. One of the joys of collecting local art is the opportunity to meet the artist, visit the studio, find out more. Collecting original art is fun and the rewards are special. You bring beauty into your life and you become someone who supports the arts.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.